In the late nineteenth century John Kemp Starley revolutionised cycling when he patented the Safety Bicycle. The design was very different to earlier cycle models, noticeably in the size of the wheels.
One of the earliest bicycle designs was the ‘ordinary’, commonly known as a Penny Farthing. This name was in reference to the two very different sized wheels, comparing them to British coinage of the time. The very large ‘penny’ wheel at the front with a much smaller ‘farthing’ wheel behind.
The large wheel on the penny farthing allowed cyclists to reach greater speeds than earlier models, and gave a far more comfortable ride than the old boneshaker bicycles. However they were also quite dangerous, especially when accelerating to fast speeds or downhill, and there were numerous accidents reported of men tipping over the handlebars, sometimes sustaining serious injuries. With cycling gaining popularity in the late nineteenth century attempts were being made to come up with more practical designs. In Britain John Kemp Starley was at the forefront of those design innovations. Born in London in 1854, Starley moved to Coventry when he was eighteen to work in his uncle’s bicycle making factory. John’s uncle, James, was already finding some success in the manufacture of penny farthings and his partnership with William Hillman, patenting one of the first penny farthings, named the ‘Arial’, in 1870 and also improving gear systems. John Starley quickly moved on to establish his own business in partnership with William Sutton. It was this partnership that produced the blueprint for the bicycle design we are familiar with today with two similar size wheels which were chain driven.
This company branded their bicycles with the name ‘Rover’ – a name which stuck even when the business moved towards car manufacture in the early twentieth century. In 1891 the company patented the ‘Rational’ tandem bicycle, an example of which can be seen on display at Thinktank. Notice that the wheels are still two different sizes, but that it looks far more like the bicycles that we are used to seeing today.
The new cycling technology led to another sort of revolution, as women now began to take up cycling as a leisure pursuit. Cycling clubs were established around the country, opening up the potential for new ways to socialise with other women outside of the constraints of Victorian home life. Cycling also led to a freedom from the constraints of restrictive clothing, as a new form of fashion was ushered in. It was simply not possible for a woman in a frothy crinoline, strapped into a rib-crushing corset, to pedal up and down muddy countryside lanes. The new fashion adopted the name of the invention that had spawned it and ‘rational dress’, consisting of bloomers and a high-waisted jacket, began to appear in public. Sometimes a length of material would be sewn onto the front of the bloomers, or trousers, to give the appearance of a dress. Of course everything was still tastefully covered with no sign of even so much as a bare ankle. Nevertheless the new fashion led to a good deal of controversy. In 1898, the Ludlow Advertiser ran a story with the headline ‘Hotel Keepers Shy at Rationals’, which revealed that some hotels were turning away women dressed in cycling clothes. A woman from Chelsea, named Mrs Arnold, complained that she had been turned away from two hotels during a cycle tour of Surrey, having been told at each that they ‘never accepted women in costume’. Her outfit, which she presented to the reporter, was described as being of a ‘pretty blue colour’ and consisted of a cycling jacket, bloomers and a hat to match. Mrs Arnold stated that although she had no intention of pursuing legal steps, she would ‘continue to wear her costume every time she rides a bicycle’.
Bicycles and bloomers soon became synonymous with the Suffragette Movement. In 1896 Susan B. Anthony, the renowned American women’s rights campaigner, declared that cycling had ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world’.
Thinktank has a selection of bicycles on display, including a rare example of a Rover Rational Tandem and a penny farthing on level 0 of the museum.